How can we summarize the past 12 months of one human life in 12-16 photos? And what about the two new books we published, the dozens of essays, the seeming quixotic but intensely rewarding research, the mentoring of bright new talents, or the lovely blossoming of friendships, new and old?
James Gleick said, “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought." If that is true, our evolution is now being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter, a form of cultural lobotomy — the truncation of elegant, poetic, ineffable life passages into 140 characters.
We thought it might be nice to close the year with an album of a different kind. Instead of measuring our outputs, we decided to have a look at the new inputs we tapped. We began a review of some of our favorite books, films and performances of 2014. Then, as we started to list them, it quickly became unmanageable. For instance, there were at least 85 books that we can remember getting through at least in part during this past year. The number of films and TV series has to be at least that long. We can recall binge watching entire seasons of some clever series in a couple days, downloading them from the web. At least we didn't go to many conferences, but the total number of inspired speakers we heard, or later watched via web links, is larger than both of the other categories.
To keep this to a manageable length – precisely the kind of truncation we just complained of - what we have assembled is just our tops in class for each of those three categories. We live in a rural ecovillage and do not have ready access to the art theatres, galleries, dance studios, off-broadway, or many other cultural crosscurrents enjoyed by our city cousins, or these lists might have been much better. We like to think our enjoyment of the daily display put on by the natural world more than makes up for any cultural privations.
Best Book: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
While we have seen some of this before in the pages of The New Yorker and love her previous Field Notes from a Catastrophe, the 336-page Sixth Extinction was hard to set down. Kolbert is one of the best science writers alive today, and her final insights were disturbing even for confirmed doomers such as ourselves.
Just Kids by Patti Smith.
A touching memoir we read on our annual dugout canoe journey upriver in Belize. Still amazed at the depth of detail, and in awe of Patti Smith's journaling skills in her raw youth.
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
This book came out in 2010 and it has generated a lot of controversy. Everyone should read it to better understand how cultural biases have been perverting our better natures.
Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis
This is not memorable wordsmithing and it is even more controversial than Sex at Dawn, but it changed our life by changing what we eat. See too: David Perlmutter, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar--Your Brain's Silent Killers
The Man Who Quit Money by William Sundeen
The central character is not as admirable as the title might suggest, but this non-fiction chronicle is top notch. Some day we may all find ourselves in similar situations, sans volition.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. "In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” “We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.” “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”
Books best avoided:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
Top Conference Presentation:
Global Oil Market Forecasting: Main Approaches & Key Drivers by Steven Kopits, Managing Director, Douglas-Westwood at Columbia SIPA: CGEP, Center on Global Energy Policy, February 2014. In the showdown between earth and economy, Mother Nature bats last.
Biodiversity for a Livable Climate in Massachusetts. Watch the whole thing. If we have to pick one standout, it would be Larry Kopald, Co-Founder and President of The Carbon Underground, speaking on the tipping points of viral memes (embed below).
Savory Institute's Annual International Conference in London. Watch the available videos while they are still outside the Savory paywall. Best of breed: Elaine Ingham, Darren Doherty.
Age of Limits Dennis Meadows doesn't accept many invitations to speak these days, but he came out for the Age of Limits conference in Pennsylvania and, as usual, he dazzled. Earlier video link here: http://energyskeptic.com/2014/dennis-meadows-collapse-is-inevitable-now-2015-2020/
Best avoided: COP-20 Lima, and anything with the word "Sustainable" in the title.
Films and TV:
Our favorite: Shameless on Showtime
This is cinema verité at its pinnacle: dirty, dark, contemporary, biting. Collapse has already arrived. Most USAnians don't get to see it unless they look under the rug. This series gets it, with delicious humor.
America's Darling (PBS)
Boom Bust (RT)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Keiser Report (RT)
Mad Men (AMC)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Nixon's The One (YouTube)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
The Geoff Lawton Permaculture Design Course series (Vimeo)
The Good Wife (CBS)
The Honourable Woman (Sundance)
The Newsroom (HBO)
The Trews (YouTube)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)
Transcendence (Warner Brothers)
True Detective (HBO)
Madam Secretary - A drama about the personal and professional life of a Hillary Clinton character as she tries to balance her work and family life. Flogging for Drone Wars, the CIA and Gitmo. Téa Leoni, have you no shame? (CBS)
True Blood – The bayou vampire classic, now too formulaic in its old age, would have been merciful to end a couple seasons earlier. (Showtime)
Walking Dead (AMC, same problem).
24 (Fox) "Every week, Jack Bauer saves civilization by torturing someone, and it works." - Senator Angus King, of Maine.
Finally, as we are often called upon to write cover blurbs, here is the best of that lot from 2014, actually a book review, penned by Sam Anderson, critic at large for The New York Times Magazine:
“Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)”